When I was younger I would, on occasion, end up in one of those Career Choices meetings where a kindly (if frustrated) person Who Knew The Way the World Works would seek to advise people of my general age, height, and social standing, about What Sorts of Things I Should Be Thinking About. These would inevitably lead, at some point, to the question;
‘But what do you want to do?’
To which I would say, ‘write’ or occasionally ‘make things up for a living’.
And the answer would inevitably be, ‘That’s not a real job, but I suppose there’s no harm in it…’ By which I think they meant that there probably was harm, in the form of penury, starvation, futility, and a generalized uselessness.
Thankfully, I ignored them.
I understand their worry, though. Life is tough. Especially today, where precarity and austerity can be added to the ever-expanding list of apocalypse horsemen. It’s hard to get on in life, and to make sure you stay afloat in a time where establish labour forms are dwindling, unprotected, or perhaps even irrelevant. There’s a question about how we do for the future. Not future-proofing, but future-responding.
And, when we’re thinking about the future, we’re thinking about a place that isn’t so very far away. We’re thinking about a world that could have A.I Singularity and mind-controlled bionic limbs. It could have antigrav. Human cloning. It will almost certainly be a world drowning, and on fire, and pretty hungry in parts, too.
We’re talking about the might-be’s, could-be’s, and the probably-will-be’s. We’re talking about imagination. Speculation. When we hear experts describing the world of tomorrow it sometimes sounds like straight-up Burning Chrome all the way to Station Eleven.
Speculative Fiction is not a maven science. It does not presume to predict the future. But what it does, is play with those visions of where we’re going, what we’re doing right now, and what might be important along the way. In the words of St. Ursula;
“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
That’s the answer, when people might ask us weirdkids what’s the point of messing about with word-choice and syntax and rayguns or magic swords.
Imagine a world where you never had the opportunity of those stories that made you. Never had those wise words whispered into your thoughts when you needed them. Never shed a tear for a character that is entirely fictional, but nevertheless real. Imagine a world without Le Guin or Okri, Tolstoy or Woolf or Morrison. Harper Lee or Atwood or Blyton. Aristophanes or Tagore. Tolkien or Angelou or Hobb or Zafon or Bourges or Bernieres…
All of those writers started by imagining something other. By asking why the reality they saw around them every day had to be the case. They were engaged in play, and playing helps you develop all of those facilities of the heart; empathy and humour, courage and resilience. Even if it is in the form of rayguns and magic swords.